Post #821: Political signs and the Town of Vienna. Digging down to find the facts.

Posted on September 21, 2020

Edit:  Nope, I still didn’t have it right.  Vienna is writing its own unique ordinance that does not match the one being promulgated as a Virginia standard.  I have rewritten this accordingly.

The Town’s unique new sign ordinance (.pdf), which is not the same as the Virginia model ordinance (despite what the public hearing notice said), would do the following, with regard to yard signs:

Limit any yard sign to no more than 12 square feet.

Place no limit in the number of yard signs you could have.

Place a 90 day limit on how long you may leave a yard sign up.

And, hilariously enough, although the genesis of this was that you had to treat all signs the same, regardless of content, the first thing they do is treat signs differently, based on content.  Political yard signs have to come down after 90 days.  Real estate signs can stay up indefinitely.

And so, literally the only thing of note, in recent Town-wide history, that the new ordinance would prevent would be a repeat of my “small town Vienna” sign campaign.  As well as the use of any campaign sign that exceeded 12 square feet, such as one erected by mayoral candidate Majdi.  (If erected in a residential area.)

It also appears to transfer some power to the Director of Planning and Zoning. Which, if you’ve been following the action in Town, is no surprise.

In any case, although the public hearing indicated that we were adopting the Virginia model ordinance, to make sure that the regulation is content neutral, neither of those statements is true.  This is not the language of the model ordinance, and the proposed ordinance differentiates treatment of signs based on content.  And, importantly, political signage is subject to more restrictive treatment than commercial (real estate) signage.

Finally, this does still reach inside your own house, and bars you from having any sign in your window for more than 90 days.  I can’t believe there’s any reasonable justification for that, other than maybe some Town Council member doesn’t like some particular sign.  And that, surely, is no justification for this part of the law.

The rest of this posting is obsolete.  Although informative.

The bottom line is that more-or-less the only thing that the new law prohibits is something like my small town Vienna signs.    Something intended for a long-term protest of Town Council actions.  And any large sign, such as the one used by mayoral candidate Majdi.  And any sign you would care to display in your window, if you want to keep it up more than 90 days.

Obsolete material follows.

I’m now going to the Town’s archives for various meetings and trying to figure out what they are actually saying about limiting yard signs.  In particular, limiting political yard signs.

To cut to the chase, if they follow through with what they propose, then:

A)  You will be limited to no more than four standard political campaign signs in your yard.

B) You will have to take them down (or, plausibly, replace them) after 90 days.

So, first, I can’t believe that would survive a legal challenge.  And second, the people drafting this were thinking only of aesthetics and safety.  I’m pretty sure they didn’t give freedom-of-speech issues any serious thought when they drafted this section of the proposed ordinance.

Details follow.

Honestly, if somebody hadn’t told me, based on their having watched the relevant meetings, I’d have no clue what the Town was up to, based solely on the written materials made available to the public.

So, it’s true that temporary political signs are covered by Town regulation.  Says so on this Town of Vienna web page, where the Town bans posting those signs on public property.  Including yard signs for political candidates.

It’s true that on 9/9/2020, the Planning Commission appears to have had a public hearing on Vienna’s sign ordinances, which you can see on this web page.

But the written description of that is so plain-vanilla, it would be hard for anybody to object to it.  The genesis of this is that, in order for sign regulations to be constitutional, it can’t treat different signs differently, based on the content of the sign.  And so, all that the Town’s website says about this is that we ought to adopt (sic) “The Local Government Attorney’s Association of Virginia … model sign ordinance.”   (The organization’s actual name can be found at this URL.)

So far, it’d be hard to object to anything there.

And, of course, there is no copy of that model sign ordinance posted with that meeting, so you, the citizen, have to go dig that up somewhere.  I found my copy at this Google URL (.pdf).

OK, now I get it.  And I get why the proposed language is so sloppy.  And why they haven’t quite made the connection to freedom of speech.  And all that.  It’s because the people drafting that model ordinance didn’t give that any thought.  They were only worried about how it looked.

Here’s the key section of that model sign ordinance, cited above.

Source:  Model Virginia sign ordinance downloaded at this Google URL (.pdf).

Just FYI, your standard campaign sign is 24″ x 18″, or 3 square feet.  So a limit of 12 square feet say that you are forbidden from having more than four campaign signs in your yard.  As I read that, that is without exception.  If you want to endorse five candidates, you’ll just be out-of-luck at the next election.

And what’s with the time limit?  Why did they think that’s a good idea.  Well, you have to read the explanatory note:

Source:  Model Virginia sign ordinance downloaded at this Google URL (.pdf).

To cut to the chase, the time limit is there only because cheap political campaign signs deteriorate over time.  I know, because for my campaign, I bought the good ones, , locally-printed , and they held up for the better part of a year.

And even with that, looks like somebody had second thoughts on including a time limit.

So, yeah, standard cheap signs can get pretty ratty looking after a few months.  But the drafters of this never seem to have given any thought to the free-speech issues involved, in their attempt to keep things neat and orderly.

Anyway, the fault here isn’t (necessarily) with Town of Vienna government.  So I apologize for my prior post on this topic.

Well, at least — the fault isn’t there, up to now.  The fault is with the drafters of this section of the model sign ordinance, who appear to value neatness over the Constitution.

Up to this point, they could reasonably claim that this was a harmless model ordinance, drafted by experts, and they would be remiss in failing to adopt it.  But now that the Town is made fully aware of what they are proposing to do — to limit your ability to express political opinions, on your own front lawn — it will be interesting to see what happens next.

I’ll bet some Town Council members have had more than four political yard signs posted at once.  Particularly those with a large yard.  Can they really keep a straight face and vote in favor of this?

As an afterthought, I think this also explains why there are so many obvious ways to dodge around these restrictions.  The drafters weren’t really thinking about people who truly wanted to express some opinion.  They were not, as in my case, thinking of some sort of long-term protest movement.  They were thinking of the aesthetics.  They didn’t want a ratty-looking yard sign.  In any case, the loss of your free-speech rights is just an unfortunate side-effect of keeping things neat and tidy.

Addendum:  I should also say, this particular model ordinance is in the process of being adopted all over Virginia.  So, based on this drafting, it’ll soon be illegal to have more than four standard campaign signs on your property.  Anywhere in the Commonwealth.  Truly, this has to be a drafting oversight.  Does Virginia really want to be known as the state that limits political expression because it’s afraid the signs might look tatty? 

Not to mention that this is an outright ban on any large political sign, no matter the size of your residential property.  In 2016, I distinctly recall two houses up on 123, between Oakton and Vienna.  These are old properties with huge front yards, sitting well away from the highway.  Both of them had gi-normous, opposing political signs.  But far enough away from 123, on large enough lots, that it was a reasonable thing to do.  Based on the plain reading of this law, that sort of thing would now be illegal.

It’s tough to believe that would survive a legal challenge.  It’s tough to believe that Virginia is setting out to make itself a laughingstock.